It’s been a long time since anyone came up with a “new” way to sell music. We spent more than a decade using vinyl, then cassettes, then CDs. You’ll still find CDs around in a few places, but they’re considered to be retro now. We’re well into the era of streaming, but even streaming is old hat. We’ve been streaming music since the old (and illegal) days of Napster. Major streaming services like Spotify find ways to tinker with the way streaming works now and then, but it’s been a long time since we saw anything in the way of innovation. That’s all changed recently thanks to the arrival of NFTs.
If you have no idea what we mean when we say “NFT,” you’re not alone. It stands for “non-fungible token,” which is a term that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. While in layman’s terms it might be just another way of selling music digitally, it comes with a crucial difference compared to streaming or paying for a download. An NFT is a certificate of authenticity and denotes ownership of digital property. Unlike any other form of digital media, an NFT cannot be copied or shared. You can’t ‘share’ an NFT with your friends. You can’t copy the file and email it to someone. It’s yours and yours alone, and might answer some of the problems posed to the music industry by the issue of digital piracy. Kings of Leon certainly think so, which is why they’re poised to become the first major band to release an album as an NFT.
The relationship between music and digital formats has been growing closer for years. Aside from releasing new albums and singles in non-physical forms, bands and artists have been diversifying their appeal by doing things like licensing their music to online slots websites or even having their own officially-branded online slots created to cash in on the popularity of slots. Guns n’ Roses were among the first bands to try that avenue, and many have followed them since. Even the online slots format is beginning to involve, with slots having unlockable trophies and achievements like the video games you play on your PlayStation. The digital world is a complex one, and while the concept of an NFT might not have caught on with the general public yet, there’s good reason to believe it will do so soon.
NFTs often go hand in hand with cryptocurrency. GIFs can be sold as exclusive NFTs, and change hands for millions of dollars worth of crypto if you can believe that. Logan Paul has made millions from NFT GIFs. A few pioneering artists have found ways to turn their paintings into NFTs and cashed in on them that way. There are whole video games that either incorporate or are wholly based around the concept of NFTs. It might be possible to stop scalpers by getting their hands on concert tickets by selling them as NFTs. This isn’t a new form of currency – it’s a replacement for currency as we currently understand it, and it’s going to take a while for the world to get its head around the idea. People once said the same thing about owning digital music rather than an album you could hold in your hand, though, and look where we are now. People adapt if they’re given a reason to do so. If big-name musicians start releasing their new material solely as NFTs, their fans will eventually get used to it.
If you’re still confused by the concept – and again, don’t worry if you are because we are too – a very well-known name is on hand to help you out. Elon Musk, whose name is generally linked to anything that’s deemed to be cutting edge in the world of technology, has decided to give the music world exactly what it didn’t ask for by releasing a song about NFTs in the hope that people will grasp the concept. In typical style, he’s made the song available only as an NFT. Once someone has purchased Musk’s song and listened to it (if they must), they’re free to use their token as a form of digital currency that can be traded for other digital items or used to buy digital media. It’s almost like a return to the old days of bartering for items rather than using money to buy them. To put it another way, it’s the 21st century digital equivalent of a Medieval market.
We know that some of you will have read our article down to this point and thought, “nobody’s ever going to go for this, and nobody would pay big money for it.” We also know that the example of Logan Paul won’t have done much to reassure you because everything associated with Logan Paul tends to be fairly absurd. Instead of focusing on that, focus on this: a cryptocurrency group bought an original Banksy in early March 2021, set fire to the painting, and then sold a digital copy of it as an NFT. It was a publicity stunt, no doubt, but the NFT sold for $382,336. Aphex Twin has sold individual pieces of art as NFTs for up to $128,000 in recent weeks. There are people who understand this format already and are prepared to pay big money for it in the hope that its value will increase as people come to understand it. There’s no suggestion that the Kings of Leon album will cost any more as an NFT than it would as a plain old CD, but the fact that it can’t be copied once it’s bought will likely add value over time – especially if Kings of Leon decided to discontinue new sales at some point in the future. Your Kings of Leon album might turn out to be an investment rather than losing value like every CD you’ve ever bought has over time. It’s a strange new world for music, but it’s the direction that the industry is heading in.
Someone will eventually come along and explain NFTs in a way that’s easy to understand for people who know nothing about cryptocurrencies or digital rights management, and that’s when this new market will eventually take off. For long-suffering musicians who’ve suffered decades of piracy and poor rates of return from streaming companies, that moment can’t come soon enough.